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Dan Shaughnessy

Moss fine wingman to Brady

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - They sat side-by-side on the bench much of the time when they were not connecting on the field. Tom Brady and Randy Moss looked a little like Larry Bird and Bill Walton in that magical winter of 1985-86: two of the best players of all-time, plotting together for the first time, beating the stuffing out of the other team.

"Randy's a great leader," Brady said yesterday after Moss shredded the New York Jets secondary with nine catches for 183 yards and a touchdown in a 38-14 thrashing of the Exit 16 Ws. "He loves playing football and being a Patriot. That means being smart and being tough and putting the team first."

This was one amazing afternoon. New England's uber quarterback spent the better part of last season trying to find the likes of Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel. Too often Brady was forced to throw to his backs and tight ends. He made it work and kept his mouth shut but his frustration was obvious. Boston Berlitz offered a course in the study of Brady's body language.

Yesterday in the Meadowlands the Patriots presented Brady with his new toy - a vintage sports car capable of blowing the doors off everything else on the track. Moss caught slants over the middle. He caught the deep ball and outran the defense. He caught the sideline pass and kept his feet inbounds. He elevated and took a pass off the top of cornerback David Barrett's helmet.

The touchdown was the piece de resistance. The Patriots led, 21-7, midway through the third quarter when Brady dropped back on a second and 6 from his 49.

"Randy slipped behind the backup safety and ran behind the defense," said Brady. "I threw it about as far as I can throw it."

Moss gathered the feathered football in full stride and three Jets ate his dust as he glided into the end zone. Not bad for a guy who was considered washed up by some of the football cognoscente. Not bad for a guy who was given away by the moribund Raiders. Not bad for a guy who did not play a down in the exhibition season.

"I don't need to revitalize myself," said Moss. "Everybody knows who I am. I've been in the league long enough. Catching balls comes naturally."

"He made catches like the old Randy Moss," said Jets safety Kerry Rhodes.

We hadn't seen the Patriots in a real game since they blew that 21-3 lead in the RCA Dome in January and we hadn't seen Jets coach Eric Mangini since he dined at Artie Bucco's restaurant in "The Sopranos". Patriots fans were hungry to see the new weapons assembled by Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli in the active offseason and no one really knew what to expect from the 30-year-old Moss.

He played the decoy the first few times he was on the field, but with just over six minutes left in the first quarter he caught a ball over the middle for 18 yards. Then he caught another for 14 yards, dragging his feet inbounds as the catch carried him toward the sideline. Then he caught one over the defense for 33 yards. Then he plucked the ball off Barrett's head.

"I felt I was in good coverage," said poor Barrett. "I didn't think he'd be able to get that. He's a game-changer."

A more appropriate line from Barrett would have been, "Randy Moss is my daddy."

"Randy is a big guy [6 feet 4 inches] with long arms," said Brady. "He's difficult to defend one-on-one."

Moss said he was nervous before the game. He said he had questions about his stamina after missing so much practice with a leg injury. The exact nature of the injury remains mysterious, and the Patriots would not answer the simplest of inquiries regarding the extent of Moss's practice participation before his first real game. So we don't know if Tom and Randy actually worked on these plays before yesterday. Moss was on the field for 39 offensive snaps.

When it was over Moss said he'd wanted to showcase his talent and make fans disregard the doubting media ("the nonsense y'all believed in"). He said his quarterback was "like a kid getting new toys for Christmas. They keep telling him, 'You can't open them.' But now he has his toys to play with." Brady didn't pick up on the Christmas theme, but he talked about Moss the way you'd expect him to talk about Tedy Bruschi or Troy Brown.

"All the players look up to him, and Randy knows that," said the quarterback.

A year ago, this would have been unthinkable. A week ago it would have been unlikely. But for one week, at least, everything has changed and you are looking at the new Randy Moss, another guy who swallowed the Belichick broth when he signed his contract with New England.

Belichick was merciless against his protege yesterday. All the new weapons (and toys) were on display. Moss was his old self with a new attitude and Brady was 22 of 28. It's hard not to go overboard here. The Patriots have been good for six years, but on paper they have never been this good.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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